If you have a child under six like each of us does, reading them Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?, listening to Mozart or playing Candyland is probably as elemental to your daily child-rearing routine as feeding them carrots or changing their diapers.
Unfortunately, for millions of American parents struggling with the recession or long-term poverty, these kinds of activities are economically impossible, robbing these children and their families of a brighter future and locking the cycle of poverty into place.
Indeed, stimulating toddlers with reading, music and games doesn't just keep them occupied, it provides them with the foundation for the next two decades of their education.
Ninety percent of our brain growth occurs between birth and five years of age. Thus, the words a toddler hears, the music that makes them tap their feet and the games they play actually acts as food for their brains.
Feed toddlers properly and their brains will be pumped up and ready for their K-12 education. Deprive them, and they're not ready for school, which is proven to lead to increased high school dropout rates, incarceration and unemployment.
Some very smart and visionary leaders, including Mark's father, Sargent Shriver, understood the incredible value of early childhood education and created Head Start in 1965, which was followed up three decades later with Early Head Start.
Still, Early Head Start reaches only five percent of eligible children, and only about half of the eligible population of three-to-five year olds receive Head Start services. Even paired with private preschools, only three out of five preschool-aged kids are enrolled in some sort of childhood education.
This should come as no surprise, as just 14 percent of our public education investment is directed toward children five and under.
As The Huffington Post wisely turns a spotlight on American education, we hope HuffPost readers and education advocates will focus not just on elementary education but on the critical need for innovation and increased investment in early-childhood education.
Simply put, it should be a right for every single toddler to be enrolled in a high-quality, early-education program. In addition, every parent should have the tools they need -- books, music and games -- to keep their children stimulated at home.
There are a number of first steps toward innovation that we can take:
- Passage of the Early Learning Challenge Fund, a $10 billion, decade-long proposal to promote innovative models for early-childhood education.
- In an opinion piece in the Washington Post this week, Ron Haskins and W. Steven Barnett wrote that the Obama administration's efforts to inject better accountability into Head Start will improve the program and, we hope, increase enrollment of more kids.
- Save the Children's U.S. Programs operates an early childhood education program -- Early Steps to School Success -- in almost 100 of the poorest communities in America, including most recently in Jennifer's native West Virginia. Through these programs, we go into homes and work directly with parents and have achieved extraordinary results, bringing at-risk toddlers up to normal levels on benchmark vocabulary tests.
The Brookings Institute estimates that a deep and truly serious investment in early childhood education would add $2 trillion to the Gross Domestic Product within a generation. This would be an incredible return on investment that would, in the future, help solve many of the problems our nation is struggling with today.
Our politicians can have a robust debate about the role of government in helping families living in poverty, but three year olds don't even have bootstraps to pull on. Now is the time to give every American child an equal start in life.
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